Central Division: Still the Class of the NHL

The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of the greatest run of success going back to the Red Wings around the turn of the century. The St. Louis Blues are the the most accomplished NHL franchise to not have a Stanley Cup in the trophy case. The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars are on the cusp of title contention, and the Minnesota Wild might not be far behind.

The Central Division is the best collection of clubs the league has to offer, and has been for some time.

But for how much longer will that be the case?

If you’re wagering, you might want to bet against this division falling off for at least a few more years.

The Chicago Blackhawks are looking to become the sixth franchise to win four Stanley Cups within a decade, the first since the Edmonton Oilers pulled the trick back in the 1980s. The Hawks have three chances to complete that feat, with three titles going back to 2010.

The window in Chicago is even longer. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith; the core of the Blackhawks dynasty, remain fairly young. Kane and Toews have yet to celebrate their 29th birthdays. Keith just turned 33 over the summer. Marian Hossa will be 38 this season and appears to be on the back nine, but Artemi Panarin appears to be poised to take his place.

An interesting fact about the Blackhawk’s reign? They’ve won the division just twice over this six-season run, with third place finishes in each of the last three seasons.

The Blues have finished ahead of the Hawks in the standings each of the last two seasons and bounced Chicago from the playoffs in the Western Conference quarterfinals last season.

Half of the Blues’ eight 100-point seasons have come in the last four 82-game seasons for the Blues; the truncated 2012-13 campaign, in which St. Louis accrued 60 points in 48 games, adjusted to 102-point pace.

“Is this the year for the Blues?” has been a storyline repeated over the past few seasons. The answer has continually been ‘no’.

So..is this the year for the Blues?

We shall see. First, they’ll have to overcome the losses of David Backes and Troy Brouwer; the former the former team captain and a longtime fixture in the St. Louis lineup, the latter a key piece in Ken Hitchcock’s lineup last year, his only one with the Blues.

But there’s still plenty in the tank. Vladimir Tarasenko has emerged as one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers while Alexander Steen continues to give good all-around production, recording 50 points for the third straight year. Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz, and Colton Parayko lead the youth movement. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo goes into his first season with the ‘C’ on his chest, the team’s best player.

The Stars are coming off a breakout season, winning 50 games for the first time since 2007 in 2015-16. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is the game’s premier center-wing combination while veterans Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza lead the way on the secondary scoring front. John Klingberg is one of game’s rising stars on the back line.

The Minnesota Wild could be this year’s Stars, hiring head coach Bruce Boudreau known for taking upstarts like the Wild to the next level. Despite not winning the ultimate prize in parts of 10 seasons in Washington and Anaheim, the 61-year-old coach has left the respective clubs in better shape than when he arrived.

A Stanley Cup would not only be Boudreau’s first, but the first in hockey-crazy Minnesota. It can be done.

A team nobody is expecting to make a run?

That would be the Nashville Predators. Don’t count them out. The Predators made the splash of the 2016 offseason by trading captain Shea Weber for up-tempo defenseman P.K. Subban. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner will slide right in with what will be one of the top blue lines in the league, one predicated on pace and skating while being more than adept without the puck. Ace defenseman Roman Josi is quickly establishing himself as one of the best players in the world.

With Subban, Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis in the back and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and James Neal up front there hasn’t been a team this good, this skilled in Nashville since opening for business in 1998.

Head coach Peter Laviolette has taken two different franchises to the Stanley Cup final.

In Winnipeg, the Patrik Laine era gets underway as the Jets look to avenge a disappointing 78-point season that followed Winnipeg’s first playoff appearance since the franchise moved northward from Atlanta in 2011.

Colorado rounds out the division, and will not be an easy out.

But of course, in this division, nobody ever is.

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